China is forcing back thousands of Kachin refugees fleeing ethnic violence in northern Myanmar, activists and aid workers say.
“The latest reports are that the push-backs are still going on and the Chinese government is refusing to face the reality that the refugees are being pushed back into a war zone,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IRIN on 31 August.
His comments come one week after HRW called on Beijing to stop the forced return of thousands of ethnic Kachin refugees to northern Myanmar, where they risk exposure to armed hostilities, Burmese army abuses, and lack of aid.
“It’s not over yet,” agreed one international aid worker inside Myanmar, who asked not to be identified. “Over the past week, half of the estimated 8,000 Kachin in China have been forced back.”
A local Kachin aid worker confirmed similar numbers, noting that the refugees had been forced to board buses back to Myanmar and that six temporary camps in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province had already been destroyed.
“It is not true what the Chinese are saying. They are forcing the refugees to leave the camps. After they leave, the soldiers and police are destroying the shelters,” added one aid worker with Wing Pong Ninghtoi (WPN), a local aid group assisting displaced people along the 2,000km Burmese-Chinese border.
“Many of those who are in the midst of being moved do not know where they are going so there is much confusion with many of the families,” said Moon Nay, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand.
Thousands of Kachin fled across the border into southern China after a 17-year ceasefire between their government and the Kachin Indepedence Army (KIA) ended in June 2011.
Earlier estimates placed the number of refugees inside China at over 7,000 – in 11 temporary camps. However, without access to the area, neither the UN nor international agencies have been able to independently confirm these numbers.
What is sure is that the push-backs from China will place an additional strain on the more than 120 IDP camps in Kachin State, many of which are already struggling to cope, particularly in areas outside government control.
“The camps inside Myanmar are already overcrowded and ill-resourced. This is a major source of concern,” said one aid worker.
In the past, Beijing has denied UN and international humanitarian agencies access to Kachin refugees on their territory. Those sent back to Myanmar will have no option but to live in IDP camps near conflict zones.
China has denied claims that it has been forcing ethnic Kachin refugees to return to a war zone, and says people have been returning voluntarily.
Responding to a 24 August article in The New York Times, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said people were returning because fighting between the Burmese government forces and the KIA was subsiding, contradicting reports by residents who say the conflict is intensifying.
Furthermore, many of the Kachin in China were not refugees, the Ministry said: “Some of them return to Myanmar for work during the day and reside in China temporarily during the night… China has, in the spirit of humanitarianism, devoted a large amount of human resources, money and other materials to supplying humanitarian assistance to these Myanmar border inhabitants.”
The refoulement of refugees is illegal under international humanitarian law.
According to the UN, there are over 62,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State, including 24,000 in government controlled areas, and close to 40,000 in areas controlled by the KIA, which has been fighting for greater autonomy from Myanmar’s central government for decades.
With several thousand believed displaced in the Hpakan area west of Myitkyina, the state capital, following skirmishes this month, it is likely the numbers could be higher.